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100 Films to Understand China: The Mao Years

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The list below is part of RADII’s 100 Films to Understand China.

The Mao Years

Communist victory in the Chinese Civil War prompted the official formation of the Chinese nation-state as it exists today — the People’s Republic of China — and ushered in fundamental, paradigmatic changes across society. Starting in the 1950s, film was pressed into the service of extolling the virtues and stated goals of the vanguard political party that still rules today.

This list covers some of the most indicative, expository and informative films made during the first decades of the PRC. It also includes a few films about China during this period, made in the relatively more open and free atmosphere of the post-Mao era.

The Life of Wu Xun (Sun Yu, 1951)

Mao Zedong personally denounced this film of Sun Yu’s after its release, claiming that the filmmaker’s ideological leanings proposed that revolution was not necessary. While the attack effectively cost Sun Yu his standing and his livelihood, it wasn’t until 35 years after the release of the movie that members of China’s Politburo admitted that Mao’s criticisms of the movie were baseless.

Linda C. Zhang, PhD candidate, UC Berkeley: An early PRC film that fell on the wrong side of politics, and that was denounced for its ideological leanings. The Tale of Wu Xun is an epic film about the drive of one man to improve the educational opportunities of the underprivileged. It features a great dream sequence about the feudal oppressors keeping peasants illiterate and disempowered.

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Guerillas in the Plain (Su Li  & Wu Zhaodi, 1955)

One of many People’s Liberation Army-worshipping movies that were released in the aftermath of World War II, Guerrillas on the Plain foreshadowed the patriotism that would come to saturate cinemas across China, with the movie set around a battle between the Chinese and Japan. 

Xueting Christine Ni, author and speaker: Works like Guerilla in the Plain (1955), Five Golden Flowers by Wang Jiayi (1959), and Liu San Jie by Su Li (1960) are still almost synonymous with this period even today. You can certainly see their influence in contemporary films from the mainland today.

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Family (Chen Xihe & Ye Ming, 1957)

Family Jia Mao Years Radii China

An adaptation from Ba Jin’s epic novel of the same name, Family examines the struggles of young people living in China under a feudal system. Three brothers struggle with the idea that their wives have already been chosen for them.

Peter Shiao, CEO and founder of Immortal Studios: 1950s zhuxuanlu [nationalistic cinema] when there was nothing else. An examination of the societal forces in Feudal China that was rotten to the core that necessitated a revolution.

The Song of Youth (Cui Wei, Chen Huai’ai, 1959)

Charting the transformation of a young woman into a loyal Communist, this patriotic showing was cinematic proof at the time of the transformative power of Communism, as it won over the hearts and minds of young Chinese people.

Linda C. Zhang: Based on the book by Yang Mo of the same name, Song of Youth was a blockbuster when it came out. It follows the trajectory of one young woman as she undergoes an ideological transformation to become a full revolutionary youth. The classic red sweater that she wears at the end of the film has become iconic.

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Five Golden Flowers (Wang Jiayi, 1959)

A romantic musical depicting the Communist Revolution, Five Golden Flowers takes the Bai ethnic community in Yunnan province as its backdrop, showing the diversity of cultures in China, while also depicting the supposed universality of the Communist struggle.

Krish Raghav, artist and writer: A fascinating, full-color film set in a Bai commune in Dali, Yunnan. Produced back when the Communist Revolution was portraying itself as a universal struggle — this is all typical romantic comedy and Bai custom interwoven with emergent Communist ethos: meeting coal quotas, discussing exploitation, overthrowing landlords etc.

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The Red Detachment of Women (Xie Jin, 1961)

The Red Detachment of Women was a phenomenon when it was released, picking up a slew of awards at the Hundred Flowers Awards. The film is one of many examples of cinematic works that depict women as the backbone of the Communist party, echoing Mao Zedong’s statement that “Women hold up half the sky.”

Linda C. Zhang: The character of Qionghua is basically a household name, as the movie was adapted into the famous ballet and film supported especially by Jiangqing herself. What’s not to love about a film that features a fiery heroine who escapes her own oppression and passionately seeks to right past wrongs? Patience, young padawan, says her mentor — the Party official who rescues her and guides her through her development.

Phoebe Long, screenwriter: This film won virtually all of the Hundred Flowers Awards at the time. Among the red films, [this one’s] “female empowerment” angle is quite novel, and the protagonist’s image is well-known in China and deeply rooted in the hearts of its people. One interesting point is that in the original, the film contained a romantic line for the protagonist, but due to the political atmosphere at the time it was eventually deleted. The content of the film and the experience of watching it reflect the characteristics of that era.

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Two Stage Sisters (Xie Jin, 1965)

This film depicts the different paths that a pair of opera singers take, with one seeking affluence and the other finding fulfillment in the socialist struggle. The film also charts changing historical conditions in China over the course of decades.

Xueting Christine Ni: Among the mass of anti-spy and revolutionary red films, Xie Jin’s women’s Trilogy (Basketball Player No.5, Red Detachment of Women [above], and Two Stage Sisters) immediately spring to mind as the films to watch. Women’s emancipation, although by no means unproblematic, is considered one of the greatest achievements of the CCP. These films aren’t just about the changes in women’s roles in society, but also about how larger political and social changes had affected the lives ordinary people.

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Breaking with Old Ideas (Li Wenhua, 1976)

The title of the film refers to the idea prevalent at the time that in schools around China there was too much study and not enough time for social practice. One of a few films produced in China during the cultural revolution, the filmmakers took care to avoid depicting an individual character, but rather aimed to show a collective personality.

Rebecca Davis, Variety Beijing Bureau Chief: One of the few films produced during the Cultural Revolution. Highly recommended! I watched it recently and was frankly riveted by it. Super engaging — very interesting depiction of debates of the time around science and education, and a great visual for what… propaganda looked like.

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The Blue Kite (Tian Zhuangzhuang, 1993)

The most famous of fifth-generation director Tian Zhuangzhuang’s films, The Blue Kite was banned for ten years after completion. Controversial for its depiction of unhappiness under the new Communist government during the 1950s and 1960s, The Blue Kite is considered a masterpiece of Chinese film.

Michael Berry, Professor of Contemporary Chinese Cultural Studies and Director of the Center for Chinese Studies, UCLA: One of the most sensitive and probing cinematic meditations on the early years of the PRC from 1949 to 1966, chronicling a political maelstrom through the eyes of a child. Features some of the most extraordinary on-screen performances from Li Xuejian, Lu Liping, Pu Cunxin, and Guo Baochang.

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In the Heat of the Sun (Jiang Wen, 1994)

In the Heat of the Sun marked the directorial debut of Jiang Wen, who has since gone on to become one of the most celebrated directors in China. The movie goes back and forth between an adult’s memories of his childhood, showing the seeming lawlessness among children of the Cultural Revolution, while also prodding and proposing questions about collective memory.

Michael Berry: In Jiang Wen’s explosive debut film, the actor-turned-director demonstrates an alternative view on the Cultural Revolution when adolescent kids could run wild and create their own reality. With a confident and sophisticated employment of visual language brimming with metaphor, In the Heat of the Sun stands as a masterpiece of contemporary Chinese cinema.

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More Films to Understand China

100 films to watch

RADII Staff
RADII (rā'dē-ī') is an independent platform of artists, writers and creators dedicated to sharing vibrant stories from the rarely explored sides of new China.
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